The Evolution of Carma


These are author's notes on how Carma came-to-be.




WARNING: CONTAINS SOME MINI-SPOILERS


Beginning: Germination of an Idea
(When Mr. Comma First Appears)

Once upon a time, I did not know what a Comma Splice was. Early 1999, Adam J. Thornton, who helped edit the first couple of IF Art Show rules, told me one of his changes fixed a comma splice. Blissfully unaware that every punctuation and grammar mistake I made had been made countless of times before by others, made so often that they actually had names, I asked what one was. So that is how "Art Show Comma Splice" ended up our email subject line. It remained there for a month or more, although we moved well beyond the original topic.

As we wrote back and forth, constantly seeing that, I started wondering about Mr. Comma. Did being spliced hurt? Like a cut? If it did, he was probably pissed at being diced and spliced all the time. Something (once I knew what it was) I realized I did quite often. It also started me thinking about the patient parentheses couple that I abused with overuse and about all the other Mr. and Ms. punctuation marks with equally legitimate gripes against me as an author or a wanna-be author. So the apparently unlikely juxtaposition of "Art Show" and "Comma Splice" began to seem fated. I decided that an angry, spliced comma would become my next IF Art example, the portrait example.

"Carma" began as regular Inform all-text game. Initially I had just one concept -- the song. VCRs only became popular when I was somewhere in my middle to late thirties. So, prior to that, I spent my twenties and early thirties watching old Black & White movies on late night TV (being an insomniac at the time). I loved many of them. Some were classics, including the musicals with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and others. So I had felt for sometime that there was gaping hole in the IF world -- musical (comedy) IF. I figured if I was going to do something different with "Carma", breathing life into punctuation, I might as well incorporate as many other different elements that I could as well. So I decided to rectify IF's drastic oversight. The song, "Accentuate the Positive," probably because of the catchy lyrics and beat, immediately sprang to mind. I researched it on the Net and started changing the lyrics. I deliberately tried to work in "Strunk & White," because "The Elements of Style" was not only a book that I found annoyingly condescending, but over time, one I also came to appreciate. Originally "Punctuate the Pauses" was just reading. I wasn't very happy with that, but thought the illusion of singing could be created.

Then I considered other missing IF genres, such as Westerns. I couldn't think of any Western IF. There may be some, but I am/was not aware of it. I've never been a big Western fan, but I have seen a fair amount, because when I was a child, my father was. I saw tons of John Wayne movies, and Western TV shows: "Gunsmoke," "Have Gun Will Travel," "Wanted Dead or Alive," "Bonanza," and "Maverick." Because of James Garner's tongue-in-cheek acting, "Maverick" was the only one I really liked, I attempted to capture his don't-take-this-seriously attitude in "Carma's" cowboy scene.

So by the end of 1999, Carma had grown to two scenes: the singing scene and most of the cowboy scene. Next I had to figure some way to segue between the scenes. I felt it wasn't necessary to have a strong connecting tie, because "Carma" was IF Art, after all, not a game. But coming up with a overall theme was difficult. I finally decided the comma would try various methods to persuade the wanna-be writer to shape up: threats, cajoling, teaching (in some form or another), etc.

Then, as usual, real life intervened and "Carma" got put on the back burner.

Spring 2000 I started doing my Inform Glulx/Glk for Dunces web page ( http://members.aol.com/doepage/glkdunces.htm ). Writing a Glulx tutorial helped me learn it. I had read "at" Andrew Plotkin's Glk Specifications, and got an inkling of what was going on, but I did not grok Glk in terms of Glulx Inform. Not even after studying Zarf's "Sensory Jam." The specifications were so dense that it was hard to see the trees when wading through such a thick forest. Reading Adam Cadre's Gull clarified how Glulx Inform used Glk windows and text styles. Then I reread the specifications and finally it all sort of fell into place, or most of it did. I had worked with something similar in the past with other programming languages. Referring to the specs, I wrote my web pages as an outline so I could lay a bread crumb trail through the bewildering Glk woods, stopping at each stump and tree, concentrating more on its hard-core programming aspects. Using an outline is also how I learn a new computer language best. And I wrote the Infglk Wrapper Reference (same url) to summarize the infglk functions so I could have an infglk study guide for myself. Although I planned to share both from the beginning, because I figured that if I went to all that work, I might as well try to help lower someone else's learning curve too. Zarf answered the few questions I shot at him, and L. Ross Raszewski became my Glulx Inform consultant, reading over the web pages for factual errors.

Doing the pages, I realized a multimedia approach for "Carma" would be absolutely perfect. I could add music, making the song more than text. I could also use graphics for the other half of a musical comedy approach, dancing. A dance number had been flickering around the edges of my mind for a while. But I hadn't been able to figure out how to make it interesting in all-text IF. I envisioned players reading, "The semi-colons high-kick..." and just being supremely bored.

Frankly, I can't remember how much I worked on "Carma" during the year 2000. I know I kept sneaking peeks at it, because the idea refused to go away.

Early 2001, supporting Glulx, I changed the 2001 IF Art Show rules to allow and encourage multimedia games. So I returned to "Carma." I found I had done more on it than I thought. I had added the bare bones for another scene, the middle interactive scene (the one with the small pictures of individual punctuation that show up when the player talks to them). I finally settled on having six scenes, with one half "cut" scenes. That way I could have some control over "story flow," and not have to draw too many graphics, since the cut scenes could use less (later this changed when I added "animation"). Alternating interactive and cut scenes would also be an interesting way to explore interactivity -- by offering quite low-level to fairly high-level. Would the cut-scenes tick people off? What if I added at least one hyperlink to each? Or a press-any-key prompt? Would that give players enough interactivity in cut scenes? Would music also add some interactivity, since it added another sense? I found these interesting questions to explore.

I worked hard on "Carma" for about month and a half, planning to enter it in the 2001 IF Art Show. I felt the IF Art concept was made more understandable if I gave examples. I had always planned to do three, one for each IF Art Show category: landscape, portrait, and still life. "Visualizing" had been my landscape example. Although I felt the example idea was ample justification for entering my own show, I still debated with myself about doing it, although there was nothing in the rules against it. Finally, I realized I would not finish in time anyway. Real life kept interfering. But I did finish most of the three cut-scenes and the first interactive scene, with graphics. So I asked some people to play it, just to get their reactions. Their comments were favorable enough that I felt encouraged. I decided, "I will finish it and release it a month or so after the show is over."

During this time it also got renamed from "Bad Marks" to "Carma." Luc French would come up to me in America On Line and ask me how it was progressing. Only he would ask the question mistitling the main character:  "How's ______ coming?" -- Coma (Not your game, the movie); Colon (Not your game, your digestion); Colma (Not your game, the city); Soma (Not your game, the drug -- from "Brave New World".) I had used alliteration within the piece for the various scenes, now, prompted by his questions, I made the title alliterative as well (Karma, but with a C for Comma).

Real life interrupted again (it has a nasty habit of doing that), so I put "Carma" on hold for 2002 IF Art Show. Late 2000 and early 2001, I had started a game for the 2001 Annual Competition. I spent about a month refining it and finished the first fourth. I also had a few people play it and again got favorable reactions. But late Spring and early Summer of 2001 I became quite ill and was ill for a couple of months. I realized that this meant I would not be able to finish my game in time for the competition. I became really depressed.

I have very conflicted feelings about the competition and always have. When I feel competitive, I do not feel creative. When I feel creative, I do not feel competitive. So mixing the two feelings is not comfortable for me. My creative feelings are warm and expansive; my competitive feelings are slightly mean and definitely contractive. The first open out in joy, the second pull in defensively tight, almost drawing the elbows in to protect the vulnerable soft belly. I am very competitive when playing card and board games. I like to win. But when I am creative I just like to enjoy my own inspiration. When I see other people's creativity, I also just like to enjoy theirs. I don't like to compare and rank it, which to me, is sort of a negation of the whole creative process. I also don't like to compare others' efforts to mine and, as a result, either feel crushingly inferior or smugly superior. But I had been hanging around raif for sometime, had six WIPS, and only released a few things. I had come to believe I had to enter the Annual Competition to "earn my credentials." Because I soon faced some life-changing that might reduce my IF involvement, now was the time.

Since I no longer had time to finish the game, I thought of "Carma." Although not a game, nevertheless it was almost a third done, and the concept was by now fully evolved. I knew almost exactly what I wanted to do for the rest. (I had also, sometime between the Spring and Summer, added animation to two of the cut scenes to make them more interesting.) I decided that programming the game would be more difficult, because the player could move around and take objects, etc. But "Carma" would be easier since I was sticking to the IF Art Show rules: 45 minutes in length, few takeable objects, and basically one room (sketchy scenery) to keep the focus on the NPC(s). So it was more likely I could finish it time. I notified Stephen that I was entering.

Now came the really intense work. In the late Spring I had started unglklib, a Glulx Inform add-on Glk library ( http://members.aol.com/doeadeer3/grokglk/ ) with the demo game "Just a Dream," to take my mind off the pain I was in. I finally finished, but about three to four weeks after I had intended to. Roger Firth kept nagging me, telling me that I needed better documentation. His criticism was valid, so I added some, but this made the whole process drag on and on. I ended up really behind my revised "finish-Carma-in-time-for-comp-deadline" schedule and now felt very pushed just to finish it. ( Note: By late Summer my physical problem had been diagnosed, I was under medication, and out of pain. )

Also in the last six weeks or so of working on "Carma" I also got distracted by working on "Vistas," and took out two weeks out to work on it because there were things I still wanted to explore in Glulx. After I "published" unglklib, Adam J. Thornton started using the library to create "Stiffy" and asking me Glk questions. So I also ran ideas for "Vistas" pass him and lent him some of its routines in beta-form for "Stiffy." I also used some myself in "Carma."

Then I worked, literally, up to the last minute. All the parts of "Carma" that I intended to be there are there. Nothing was cut due to time pressure. But it should have had at least another week of betatesting (preferably more). I also had things I still wanted to do: a few more graphics, trimming the size of the sound files down even more, adding more branches in the third interactive scene, four more sentences, and additional betatesting of my own. But I did finish.


End: The Push to Finish -- A Breech Birth
(When I have fun blowing up interpreters)

In the last two-three weeks of finalizing "Carma," all kinds of unanticipated problems cropped up, putting a lie to the wishful-thinking premise that it was the easiest of my WIPs to finish. It became an exercise in Murphydomism , where almost everything that could go wrong, did. Adam (Thornton) tested "Carma" several times on his Linux interpreter (with a sound patch) and discovered the Windows-formatted sound files were incompatible. I had Linux on my second drive, but for various reasons I could not test "Carma" with sound. I was unsure how I was going to fix this problem in the time I had left. I also felt it really was not my problem, I am a game programmer, not an interpreter programmer (and regardless of what anyone else says, I still say that that is a valid position to take). My business was/is writing games, not fixing interpreters. My skills do not rise to that level. Or if I could take them to that level, I certainly could not do it in three weeks. Luckily Adam J. Thornton and Torbjörn Andersson, tracking down sound problems with both "Just a Dream" and Adam's "Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country," managed to create patches that also helped me. (Also thanks to Otto Frank for creating a Linux graphic patch.)

Then I couldn't find a Mac betatester to see if the Mac interpreter also differed from the Windows and Linux interpreters. Earlier I had "advertised" in raif for a Mac betatester for "Vistas" and only two people responded. I suggested both play "Just a Dream" first. No response from one, and the other couldn't get the demo game to load (which I later learned had to do with file associations, but I was too Mac-clueless at the time to tell him what to do). So I got no early Mac feedback.

I also discovered a bug that showed up when using the Linux interpreter, but not the Windows interpreter. Which made it questionable whether it even was a bug. However, I felt there were enough Linux users that I had to remove it. A complete Linux novice, I edited in Windows, compiled, and then rebooted to switch to Linux on my other drive to test it. If not fixed, I rebooted back to Windows to start all over again. Staying up all night, doing that over and over, I finally managed to remove the bug just two nights before the comp deadline.

In essence, in the last few weeks I also had to deal with a lot of interpreter problems, although I was still simply trying to finish writing and coding "Carma." They sometimes implemented the same glk library code in enough of a different way that there were marked performance inconsistencies.

When I was more than ready to hire thugs to go over to Zarf's apartment to beat him up, I reminded myself that I was deliberately experimenting. Part of that experiment was pushing Glulx to its limits (in certain ways). Another was just using Glulx itself, a system that had not yet been used for a finished and released graphic & sound piece. I also reminded myself that pioneers often end up with arrows in their back. (And the creators of new, basically untested systems may end up with broken legs.)

Because I was so pushed, I knew I would be able to allot only one week for betatesting. About a month before finishing, I assigned the week before the competition deadline for that task. Since "Carma" was not really a game, I thought it would not be that BIG a problem -- there was less to go wrong. Until three of the betatesters I had lined up, dropped out at the last minute. And until, during that last week, one of the few remaining, Gilles Duchesne, tested "Carma" on his Mac at work and discovered, "It doesn't really work on the Mac." I found this out, of course, much too late to do anything about it. But if my hair wasn't already thinning, I would have indulged in a lot of frustrated hair pulling. (Although I did resolve that thugs weren't really enough, Zarf obviously warranted an assassin.) Also in the last week, I fixed that Linux bug, and added some Easter eggs suggested by Luc French. He also insisted on a hint file, but fortunately he contributed one that I only had to rewrite slightly. However, the last week of finishing "Carma," the week before the competition deadline, was more stressful than any week I have had experienced in a long time -- or ever want to experience again.

Maybe I shouldn't have tried to finish "Carma" for the competition. Maybe I should have decided back when I was sick earlier in the Summer that I simply didn't have enough time anymore to finish anything. Maybe I should have bowed my head in meek acceptance of letting yet another comp slide by, unentered.


Middle: How Carma Grew -- Like Mold
(When Mr. Comma and the gang take over)

The second and third interactive scenes -- somehow I felt I had always had those ideas in mind. The puzzle, ditto. They just seem to always have been there. After all, they were logical extensions of angry punctuation. But I know how I really work, and I know that isn't what really happened.

In retrospect, some of the concept for and details of the last two interactive scenes sprang into existence fully-formed, while other parts were initially squishy. Over time I have found that when a nebulous idea arrives, if I stick it in the dark back of my mind, my subconscious will evolve it. If it is going to go anywhere, it grows unattended, like fungus or mold. If it isn't, it doesn't even sprout. Occasionally I have to interject conscious thought into the process, like checking and stirring a pot simmering on the stove. But when the ideas are finally ready, I always end up feeling they emerged complete at the beginning -- it only took some cooking to clarify them.

So I can't really say with any accuracy when the ideas for the second and third interactive scenes originated and how they grew. Only one potential scene remained squishy and was not included. I know I did consider various genres and situations I felt had not been done before or done very much before in Modern IF. I also thought occasionally of Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" and the warnings made by the three ghosts -- the idea of differing alternative futures based on the protagonist's behavior. Lastly, I know when I think of IF in terms of IF Art I come up with totally different ideas than when I think of it in terms of games. (Note: Adam told me later the third interactive scene reminded him of a game -- one with the same name as its theme music -- that he had played as a callow youth. I never played it, but found it interesting that it even existed. Since personal computers only became popular in my early to middle thirties, I did not grow up with one and/or receive computer games as gifts on birthdays and holidays. So I have played only about twelve graphic games in my entire life.)

Once clear, I had an image in my head of each scene -- an image of what would happen. Drawing the graphics helped further clarify those images. So I did not story board scenes. But I did draw the graphics first before writing or finalizing each one. As I drew individual punctuation, it became clearer to me what their personalities were. Getting a handle on their personalities gave me a better idea of what they would say and how they would act in certain situations. I never use a lot of conscious thought when drawing/painting. Some sure, but basically I let what is going to happen, happen. Let the process take over. So drawing the graphics first helped steer me to what to write.

For example, I had the skeleton for the second interactive scene, but the graphics were drawn before the scene was fleshed out with writing. For the third interactive scene, I drew the graphics before doing any writing or programming. I finished the second and third interactive scenes in a little over a month. I drew the graphics for both solidly for about two and a half weeks. Then I wrote the third interactive scene in two weeks. I wrote the second in a week (the concept was clear enough by then that I could do it quickly, but it suffered a little from the compression. If not pushed, I would have spent more time on it).

I got a big kick out of giving punctuation personalities. I used the M&Ms candies (from the TV commercials) as a rough guideline for the cartoon effect I wanted to achieve. I really enjoyed doing the graphics although it took a great deal of time. Creating each took at least several hours; most took one to several days. But I also worked on more than one at a time -- a little bit on one, then a little bit on another. Tons of graphics were rejected and/or were used to incrementally create a final graphic. i.e. One graphic would be stage one of the final graphic, another stage two, etc. I also created various graphics in layers and saved layers. This is the best way to do graphics, so one can backtrack to an earlier stage or layer if something goes wrong later. I also concentrated most on the different punctuation's expressions. An eye moved a few centimeters in one direction or another can change the whole facial expression and thus change that character's personality and attitude.

I used PaintShop Pro 7. "Carma" has approximately 225 graphics (that number is not exact, I am not a counter of things). There are 885 .PSP graphics in my "Carma" directory. (PSP files are the format PaintShop Pro initially creates. Usually one uses them as graphic masters, because their palette/pixel-ratio is best, then later converts them to whatever format is desired, such a JPEG).


Afterward: The Future

Would I do such a graphic-intensive piece again?
No, definitely not.
Will I use Glulx Inform again?
Yes. Although more difficult than I feel it should be, I really like it.
Will I do graphics in a "game" again?
Also yes.
Will I do all-text again, now that I have tried multimedia?
Yes. I still plan to do that. Some of my existing all-text WIPs would be too much trouble to convert to graphics, for one thing. But using graphics in IF makes me feel like I am actually opening my eyes -- that I can finally see.
Will I enter the Annual Competition again?
I am hoping I have now earned my credentials and so I won't have to. I really prefer to release things in my own time and own way.
Will I do anything like "Carma" again?
No. It's unique. But I may do fantasy again. I also have this nifty and completely different idea for my next IF Art example. I plan to release it in about two years. Next up is a still-life. You are...
And will we hear again from Mr. Comma?
He's taken a new job more in keeping with his talents -- with U.S.A Today.

Back to My Games        Interactive-Fiction Main Page